Medieval Theology The Image

Just as the Eastern and Western traditions developed distinct readings of the theology of grace, the High Middle Ages in the West construed in two ways human beings as images of God. The scholastic theologians explained the believer's life of faith as a spiritual movement through which the human image journeys to become a fully fledged likeness of God in Christ. Or else they borrowed from Augustine's trinitarian theology: everything human and spiritual reflects the soul's triadic constitution. Since the human soul comprises memory, intellect, and will, the process of graced conversion follows the same pattern and consists of knowing, understanding, and loving.125

Bonaventure exemplifies the first approach: individuals embark on their journey towards God by looking for footprints or clues (vestigia) of God within creation itself. These stimulate the human image to recognize the nature of its very being, so that it feels the call to imitate the prototype. The person thus enters a process of love, meant to enhance the likeness and render it all the more similar to God. Bonaventure wrote:

Since it happens that God is contemplated not only outside us and within us, but also above us: outside through vestige, within through image, and above through

124 Simeon the New Theologian, Hymns , 2. 19—27, as quoted during a general audience by John Paul II on 13 September 2000, in his reflection on 'The Christian as inspired by the Spirit'; see G. A. Maloney (ed.), Hymns of Divine Love by St. Symeon the New Theologian (Denville, NJ: Dimension, 1999), 17.

the light of Eternal Truth, since 'our mind itself is formed immediately by Truth Itself'; those who have been exercised in the first manner, have entered already into the entrance-hall before the tabernacle; but those in the second have entered into the holies, moreover those in the third enter with the supreme Pontiff into the Holy of Holies, where above the ark are the Cherubim of glory overshadowing the propitiatory; through which we understand two manners or steps of contemplating the invisible and eternal things of God, of which one hovers around the things essential to God, but the other around the things proper to the persons.126

Bonaventure's theme of light recalls the theology of Pseudo-Dionysius (lived c. AD500): it stresses the soul's lifelong journey towards God's unapproachable light and the process by means of which the soul gradually purifies itself, as it approaches its divine beloved.

Those medieval authors who illustrated the life of grace by drawing on an Augustinian-style triadic scheme did so in differing ways. Bernard of Clairvaux and his Cistercians accentuated the will and dwelt primarily on the role of divine and human love within the life of grace. The Victorines, the scholars of the abbey of St Victor in Paris, considered the intellect to be the primary seat of the divine image, and cosmic contemplation the image's golden way to God. Bonaventure and later Franciscan theology tried to work out a compromise between these two traditions, and thus harmonize the affective and the intellectual approach to God. Medieval spirituality could therefore understand the life of grace as an ongoing conversion which, after the initial turning away from evil towards God (the viapurgativa), enters a process of enlightening imitation (the via illuminative), and moves towards full union with God (the via unitiva).™

Linking some elements of Neoplatonic philosophy with Christian mysticism, Meister Eckhart (c.1260—1327) emphasized grace as the source of the true life that comes from God: 'The work of grace is to make the soul quick and amenable to all divine works, for grace flows from the divine spring and is a likeness of God and tastes of God and makes the soul

126 Bonaventure, The Journey of the Mind into God ,5.1. This translation has been prepared by The Franciscan Archive (a WWW Resource on St Francis and Franciscanism), with a particular emphasis on preserving the metaphors used by Bonaventure.

127 Many Western schools of spirituality adopt a triple access to God: the way of purification, the way of imitation, and the way of contemplative union. The second approach gave us the fifteenth-century classic attributed to Thomas a Kempis, The Imitation of Christ , while the third way inspired the anonymous The Cloud of Unknowing , usually dated to the close of the fourteenth century. This triple access to God provides a profound hermeneutic of Ignatius Loyola's Spiritual Exercises (16th cent.).

like God.'128 Usually Eckhart referred to the highest dimension of the human soul as the small spark of God: 'a transcending light and an image of the divine nature and created by God'.129 Eckhart translated the three traditional ways (purgative, illuminative, unitive) into four steps that could account for the soul's journey towards God:

The soul takes four steps into God. The first is that fear, hope, and desire grow in her. Again she moves on, and then fear and hope and desire are quite cut off. At the third stage she comes to a forgetfulness of all temporal things. At the fourth stage she enters into God where she will eternally dwell, reigning with God in eternity, and then she will never again think of temporal things and of herself, being fused with God and God with her. And what she then does, she does in God.130

Summing up the believer's journey in this world, Meister Eckhart moved directly to prayer: 'May God help us take these steps here [i.e. on earth] and (thus) die, that we may rejoice in Him in eternity. Amen.'131

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